This season has been much different from the start. Johnson erred on a throw to second base on Opening Day, prompting Chicago Cubs hitter Mark Grace to crack to him, "I never thought I'd see the day." Johnson's defense has continued to suffer, at least statistically. Through Sunday he hadn't thrown out any of the 11 runners who had attempted to steal on him, largely because of pitchers who are so poor at holding runners on that Leyland has scheduled afternoon tutorial sessions for them. "Charles is a weapon on defense," Leyland says, "but if you don't put yourself in position to use it, that's a no-no. And it looks to me like he may be trying to overcompensate by rushing his throws a little bit." Johnson also had a passed ball, and he was hitting just .216, with three homers and 14 punchouts in 51 at bats.
Only the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Astros had better ERAs last season than Florida's 3.83. But because of the off-season salary dumping by Marlins owner and former waste-disposal baron Wayne Huizenga, as well as a rotator cuff injury to righthander Alex Fernandez, Florida no longer has the services of pitchers who accounted for 80% of its 1997 innings. At week's end only the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks had worse ERAs than the Marlins' 5.51.
"With guys like [departed ace Kevin] Brown and Leiter, I knew them so well that I could tell as soon as a slider left their hands if it was going to bounce in the dirt," Johnson says. "Now, I don't know who can throw a 1-and-0 changeup or a 2-and-0 slider. I'm learning. But it takes half a season, maybe a full season."
Even Florida pitching coach Rich Dubee had never played or coached in the majors until this year. Pregame meetings to review opposing hitters have consisted of Johnson; Zaun, who entered the season with all of 68 games of National League experience; and a pitching coach and a starting pitcher who more often than not have never seen the other team. "They keep it pretty simple," says Meadows, a 22-year-old whom the Marlins drafted in the third round four years ago. "Either 'this guy doesn't hit soft stuff or 'pound him in.' Right now CJ is getting to know me just like I'm trying to learn the hitters. I rely on him totally."
Meadows symbolizes Florida's predicament: The team more resembles a Triple A outfit than a defending world champion. With Johnson's help, Meadows, a talented righthander, is learning to locate his changeup—albeit against major league hitters. "For the most part, Charles will set up away," Meadows says. "In the minors all I cared about was getting it down. Anywhere."
Leyland and Johnson are the training wheels for their wobbly staff. Leyland sends hand signals to Johnson for pitchouts, pick-off attempts and stepoffs (when a pitcher backs off the rubber to keep a runner close). Johnson calls pitches with virtually unchecked authority. Righthander Livan Hernandez, 23, the biggest career winner in the four-man Florida rotation (11-4, after a 2-1 start through Sunday), threw 128 pitches in a 12-4 win over the Phillies last Thursday and shook off Johnson only three times. Meadows shook off Johnson just once in the 224 pitches he threw in his first three starts. "And that will probably never happen again," says Meadows of the wayward curveball that didn't come close to the plate—Johnson had requested a changeup—in his first big league win, a 3-2 victory over Philadelphia ace Curt Schilling on April 15.
Meadows was not exercising veto power on his first pitch of a game in Pittsburgh, when he nailed Johnson on the left shoulder with a curve after Johnson put down one finger for a fastball. "My eyes were kind of watery, and I thought I saw two fingers," Meadows says. "I felt bad about it. I kept apologizing to him."
At 6'2", 220 pounds, Johnson is well equipped to withstand the rigors of a trying season. He is unusually rangy for a catcher—he wears 37-inch sleeves—but with thighs and a backside that cannot be accommodated by 38-inch-waist pants off the rack, he does have the typical receiver's thick center of gravity. What most sets him apart, however, is his devotion to the defensive side of the game.
"Charles does everything just the way you'd want a catcher to do it, and he works hard at it," Florida third base coach Rich Donnelly says. "He practices blocking balls twice a week. No other catcher in baseball does that. None."
Johnson blocks balls with his legs splayed butterfly style, the way Patrick Roy tends goal. "When I go to block a ball, I try to relax my body as much as I can," he says. "I want the ball to feel like it's hitting a big bag of cotton. If my body feels that way, I feel like the ball is not going to bounce that far away."